During my ten years practicing in juvenile delinquency court, I’ve been struck by the overwhelming number of cases in which youth readily confess to police — often school resource officers. Sophisticated interrogation techniques are usually not required. The officer need only get the kid alone in a hallway, a police cruiser, or school conference room, and the youth complies — giving long answers to questions, trying to rationalize or explain away their behavior but succeeding only in implicating themselves. The interviews are usually quite brief — thirty minutes or less. On the rare occasion when a parent is present, it makes no difference — they allow full questioning of their child and rarely intervene. And once the police have a confession, there’s usually a plea (or “admission”), rather than a trial. The result is a criminal system that is more inquisitorial than adversarial, which is not what I would call “justice.”
Professor Barry Feld (Minnesota) has a new book out from NYU Press, Kids, Cops, and Confessions: Inside the Interrogation Room, that is a vital resource for anyone who cares about what happens to kids when they are questioned by police. Professor Feld analyzes quantitative and qualitative data, including tapes, transcripts, police reports, juvenile court files, and dispositional reports from over 300 cases in which 16 and 17-year-olds were charged with felonies in one of four counties in Minnesota. In each of these cases, the files included either an interrogation tape or transcript or the juvenile had invoked Miranda rights. Professor Feld also conducted extensive interviews with police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and juvenile court judges to learn their views about the interrogation of juveniles.
The result is a groundbreaking study that vividly illustrates the particular vulnerability of minors, providing further evidence that the protections we provide adults during interrogation do not begin to suffice for teenagers. Like all of Professor Feld’s books and articles, this one is an important addition to my juvenile justice library, and I encourage you to check it out.